Friday 27 April 2018

Scots can turn their pain into advantage and build on the promise of World Cup

Greig Laidlaw: Shrewdness and efficiency Photo: PA
Greig Laidlaw: Shrewdness and efficiency Photo: PA

Eddie Butler

Forgive me, proud nation of Scotland, if this feels like the short straw. It's just that you have - not that you stand accused of doing it deliberately - failed to deliver when your cause has been promoted right here in these pages.

Perhaps it wasn't so last year, before your whitewash special, because to be honest, any claim that you might in 2015 be about to unleash a 1990 special, one of those walk-out bravura campaigns, would have been a sackable offence.

In seasons before that, however, you certainly were presented - and regularly at that - as a tip for a dark-horse challenge. People chuckled and the credibility of the sponsor of your credentials shrank as you stayed in the grip of that fever that reduced you to jelly just short of the line.

Your build-up work was so deft and precise; if only you could have scored tries. Ah, if only Mike Denness could have hit sixes with a thistle, or Paul Lawrie strike a drive 300 yards with a bulrush.

To be honest, you have been a disappointment. But here's the thing. Drained of belief, I nevertheless found myself - and before witnesses, I swear - saying early on that Twickenham Sunday of Australia v Yourselves at the World Cup that the Wallabies would win, but only by the finest of margins because you were about to play the game of your lives.

And so it is, based on that strangest day - when re-emergence ran headlong into oh, the injustice of it all - that you enter the 2016 Six Nations as genuine contenders. Vern's vaccine has worked and you are free of the fever. Coach Cotter has cured you. You stood firm against Japan in precisely those channels where South Africa had been exposed. You backed up that organised defiance with a professional job on the USA and you refused to give way to the intimidating Samoans and scored 36 points into the bargain. True, you lost to South Africa, but that was a tricky one - meeting the Springboks still in the grip of the shame that went with losing to Eddie Jones' then team was always going to be tough. South Africa took losing to a side known affectionately as the Brave Blossoms badly.

Here you are then, ready to launch yourselves at England for the Calcutta Cup that you have not won in the last seven attempts - another reason to be determined to set a few records straight. You have Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, your players with a little something extra, rediscovering top form at just the right moment. You have to be quietly confident you can score a lot of points.

There will be no Alex Dunbar in the centre - he has an injured thigh - and no Adam Ashe in the back-row. But any two from Mark Bennett (first-choice if fit), Matt Scott and Duncan Taylor in midfield should cause problems for any defence. And if you take the plunge and pick a pair from a posse of 7s - John Hardie, Blair Cowan or John Barclay - you could have rich pickings from the breakdown. England reckon they can still do without a specialist openside; you might think differently and pick two. Goodness, in the light of Dave Denton seemingly out of form at No 8 since going south to Bath, you could even pick the three of them.

Greig Laidlaw does not have the speed of pass or foot of Ben Youngs or Danny Care, but he has a rugby brain the size of the Highlands, and every team needs shrewdness and neatness and efficiency. If it's an injection of speed you need on the hour, then Sam Hidalgo-Clyne can bring it off the bench.

The set-piece will be examined by England, but it was pretty good against the reborn scrummagers of Australia and the lineout has generally been secure. What was worrying against Australia was the defence, which leaked five tries. Against Japan, you plugged the holes that the BBs tried to find with plays straight from set-pieces, but Australia's intricate switches in more broken play opened you up.

There is obvious danger there, but it is unlikely that Jones, who has coached both Australia and Japan, will be able to make England pass as menacingly as Bernard Foley or find angles as instinctively as Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau. There is potential in the England team and a willingness to experiment, but they have had little time together.

You on the other hand have been through a lot and learned a lot. You have been through pain together - not the despair that goes with losing your mojo, but the agony of being denied when you stood on the brink of something - a World Cup semi-final - beyond your wildest dreams.

Promoters and sponsors of your cause should be easy to find. But not here.

It's not superstition - the suspicion that to tout you is to sink you - but a little slap. A little ouch. Your game with England is all about turning pain to advantage.


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